The Ultimate International Law Test: The European Refugee Crisis

Aylan Kurdi Body

The picture above was the catalyst that finally made clear the horrific consequences of the Syrian civil war. The European Refugee Crisis was no longer just numbers on a page, it instead became the tragic reality of a young boy forced to flee his war-torn country. Only hours after the image was published, the hashtag #humanitywashedashore began trending on social media, calling attention to the dangerous route many families take crossing the Mediterranean.

The European Refugee Crisis arose from Syrian political unrest in 2011, as tension grew between the government and various protesting groups. The ruling Assad government (backed by Russia), Islamic extremists and numerous rebel groups began fighting in streets populated with civilians – individuals and families who had no quarrel with the regime became cannon fodder for the power hungry. While the events that began the Syrian Civil War are incredibly complex and comprehensive – the result? A war zone on peoples’ doorsteps, caused by extreme political instability. Syrians fled their homes in search of peace and safety for themselves and loved ones, resulting in the worlds greatest internal and external displacement of people since the second-world war.

The consequences of the Syrian Civil War eventually spilled into Europe and triggered what we know today as the “European Refugee Crisis.” At once, the international community turned its focus to striking a balance between the security and institutional structure of wealthy European nations and the moral good of offering refugees the asylum that they seek. However, it is important to understand that the majority (6.5 million) of Syrian refugees have been displaced within their own country, while Syria’s neighbouring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – are predicted to have received over 3 million refugees. Facts that really put the “European” refugee crisis in perspective.

The mass arrival of refugees creates a series of issues, particularly the large task of trying to maintain health and education services for people, along with the threat of possible violence spreading into these cities and towns. The majority of refugee camps established in countries bordering Syria are funded by The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) which receives a large chunk of its international donations from the United States, the European Union and Kuwait. Even so, these camps remain underfunded and unable to protect refugees’ lives or uphold their human rights.

Meanwhile, many European countries responded to the rapid influx of both legitimate and illegitimate refugees with ‘open border’ policies, in order to accommodate as many Syrian refugees as possible. However, once they realised how many more people were yet to make the journey to Europe, most nations closed their borders soon after. The European Union estimates that 150,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe, 85% of which have been settled in Germany alone.

So, how does this relate to international law?

The United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (UNCSR) provides no specific definition towards what constitutes a refugee, or how nations should respond in a situation such as the one currently unfolding in Europe. However, Article 31 of the UNCSR does state that no country can penalise a person seeking asylum, while Article 33 prohibits a country from returning a refugee to a state, if that state threatens their “life or freedom… on account of race, religion, nationality, [or] membership of a particular social group of political opinion.” The issue with this convention, and with all international conventions, is that they are not legally binding on a country unless the terms of the convention has been enacted into that country’s own domestic law.

The ability of international governing bodies to enforce international law is at best limited, but mostly non-existent. During such a time as the European Refugee Crisis, this authority is further diminished, as state sovereignty remains a critical element in the international system. International judicial bodies, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), are more concerned with individuals and states that commit serious crimes such as genocide, than with nations closing their borders when they believe their economic prosperity and political freedom are in jeopardy.

Another critical issue is the infiltration of “illegitimate persons” who are using the Syrian crisis to gain entry into more affluent European nations, which offer better lifestyles and opportunities for them and their families. Recent attacks on Paris and Brussels, have left many nations in Europe fearful for the safety of their citizens and concerned with the possibility of extremist groups being able to manoeuvre their way into and within European countries under the guise of a refugee. This relatively small threat is serving as a barrier to the acceptance of refugees into Europe.

The European Refugee Crisis has been one of the most complex and large-scale issues to face the international community in the 21st century. The solution is far from simple, and will rely on collective commitment from member states of the United Nations to accept more refugees and provide the appropriate funding to bodies such as the UNHCR, that will help to supply refugee camps and provide refugees with opportunities for economic and social integration.

Louisa Nancarrow is a second-year Law & Society and Politics & International Relations student at the University of Western Australia, who has come to realise that university is just a $60,000 test to see how many series’ on Netflix you can get through in one day.

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